Fear, Guilt, Duplicity, and Cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church by Carol P. Christ

Carol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 2Last week I watched Spotlight, the film about the Boston Globe‘s exposure of priests’ sexual abuse of children, and then I watched it again. There are many reasons for my fascination with this film. I almost always root for the underdog, and in this story the underdog wins. Moreover as a former Catholic (for a period of time) and as part-Irish, I relish an inside glimpse of the machinations of the all-male Church hierarchy and the all-male Irish power structure that supported it in Boston.

Having dealt with child sexual abuse on an almost daily basis while I was teaching women’s studies, I also have a very personal and emotionally-charged relationship to the subject. I was pleased that victims of child sexual abuse were able—after great struggle—to get a hearing. But this I already knew.

Catholic hierarchy with umbrellasWhat made me watch the film a second time and what keeps it swirling around in my mind is that I am struggling to understand the psycho-sexual dynamics of the priesthood that make the abuse of children by priests not only a common occurrence, but also a fact that is still being covered up.

One line from the film stuck in my mind. In a telephone interview, psychologist and former priest Richard Sipe said that the root of the sexual abuse cover-up is priestly celibacy, which because it is not widely practiced, creates a climate of fear, guilt, and duplicity in the hierarchy of the Church. In “An Interview with Richard Sipe,” Sipe states that his research reveals that at any one time, only about 50% of priests are actually practicing celibacy.

If we accept this statistic, we can imagine that far (?) more than 50% of priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes have not been celibate at some time during their priesthood! Sipe found that only 6% of priests are having sex with children. Many others are having sex with other adults, both male and female, in long-term or short-term relationships. In addition, a large number of priests are not having sex with other people, but are masturbating, and many of them are using pornography.

In the interview, Sipe does not indicate what proportion of the priests are having sex with other adults and what percentage are masturbating. But as Sipe explains, because the Church considers masturbation to be a violation of celibacy, even those who are “only” masturbating are engaging in sinful behavior that violates a central vow of the priesthood. Every priest who is engaging in sexual behavior of any kind is expected to “confess” his sin. Since almost every priest violates the vow of celibacy at some time during his priesthood, it would make no sense to kick a priest out of the priesthood for this sin. Thus, violations of the vow of celibacy are routinely “forgiven” by confessors. At the same time, nothing is ever said about the fact that one out of every two priests, a large number of bishops and cardinals, and maybe even the pope himself, are deceiving the faithful about their celibacy.

Late one night at a party after one or two too many scotches, a Jesuit priest revealed to me that many of his colleagues were having sex with divorced women who came to them for counseling. (Divorce is still considered a sin by the Church.) These priests considered themselves to be celibate if they went as far as penetration, but withdrew before orgasm. These men might even bring the women to orgasm and leave them begging for more, while holding back from “taking pleasure” themselves. He added that, in their twisted minds, they considered themselves to be more “holy” than the women with whom they were having sex, congratulating themselves for their “self-restraint.”

According to Sipe, it is this kind of sick culture of deception and self-deception, lying and cover-up, that led and continues to lead the Church hierarchy to carry on as usual, forgiving priests for their sexual sins–even when confronted with priests who have sex with children. Imagine yourself as a priest who has been forgiven of sexual acts you and your Church consider to be sinful. Wouldn’t your tendency be to forgive a fellow sinner? To expose one group of priests for (heinous) sexual sins, threatens to expose the (less heinous) sexual sins of almost every other priest, bishop, cardinal, and pope. To identify with child victims opens the door to identifying with adult victims (female and male) of priestly sexual activity as well.

A web of deception, laced with guilt and fear, and requiring cover-up, allows sexually active priests to maintain the lie that they are celibate and holier than the rest of us because of their celibacy. A whole house of cards is falling, and this is exactly what the Church was afraid would happen.

Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Early Bird Special until February 15. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ.  Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the GoddessGoddess and God in the World final cover design will be published by Far Press in the spring of 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in June 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.



Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Catholic Church, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General

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27 replies

  1. The whole notion of celibacy is a mental construct that finds no home in the body… denying the life-force/libido, has led to these many mental acrobatics on the part of the church around an issue that is simply unsupportable…


    • The argument that celibacy is responsible for pedophilia shows a total lack of understanding of predators. Pedophiles choose jobs like these because they believe they can get away with it. The Catholic hierarchy forgiving the behavior of pedophiles and the way priests are put on a pedestal by people around them make the priesthood a job that would attract pedophiles. Pedophiles groom victims and parents and are very methodical about attacking children. If the Catholic hierarchy is equating masterbation with pedophilia then there has to be a lot of education in the church. Even sex between two consenting adults is very different than the predatory behavior of a pedophile. It always disturbs me when I hear the argument that celibacy is responsible for pedophilia. Pedophilia is not about sex. Rape of children and adults is not about sex. Both behaviors are about power.


      • India, while pedophilia in theory may not be about sex but about power, the issue still remains about its prevalence among the clergy who are not permitted to enjoy normal sexuality… and who have to hide their sexuality behind shame, confession, absolution… and subsequent lies and silence…


      • You misread me India. I do not think celibacy is responsible for pedophilia. If it were more than 6% of priests would be pedophiles.

        What I was suggesting is that celibacy not practiced creates a climate of cover-up that contributed to covering up priestly pedophilia.


      • I don’t know if there is a statistical difference between priests and the regular population for pedophilia. Pedophiles choose certain jobs as a way to get to victims. If there is a statistical difference between priests and other jobs my guess is it is because of the reasons I stated. Changing celibacy in the church is a totally different topic. One can make an argument that denying people sexuality is an unhealthy thing. Pedophilia is not the way to do that. Pedophiles are predators. We need to take them out of the discussion about priestly celibacy.


      • I didn’t think you were saying that celibacy causes pedophilia, Carol. I was really responding to your author. I think it is a complicated issue. We have seen other organizations cover up pedophilia and it had nothing to do with celibacy but with power structures and the prestige of the individual. I can see his argument that there is fear and guilt around sexuality that could lead to covering for priests who molest children. I don’t like the mix, however. And the example he gave of priests having sex with women they are counseIing is predatory behavior in itself. There is a power differential there. It seems to me what needs to change is the power structure in the church.


      • India, if you follow the link to the interview with Sipe I think you will see he on the right side of this issue. He is one of the people who advised and helped the Spotlight team and who tried to bring the issue of priest abuse of children into the public eye in order to stop it and get justice for the victims. His research included other forms of priest sex as well. I agree with you that any cleric or other spiritual leader who is having sex with someone under his care is abusing his spiritual power.


      • Thank you, Carol. I will look at it.


  2. Yes, we might be against celibacy as a requirement on many grounds. I agree with you there. However, in this case I was speaking of a particular pathology of lies secrets and silences it engenders and how that contributed to the cover-up.


  3. But is the root of these lies, secrets, and silences not rooted in enforcing the unsupportable restriction of celibacy? If priests were allowed to be married and allowed to be sexual, and if masturbation is not deemed a sin, would these lies and secrets and silences have such a fertile ground to grow in?


  4. I was in the Roman Catholic Church for a number of years, when I was young, and attended mass every weekday and also worked as a volunteer in their soup kitchen, which happily gave out free meals at lunchtime to the poor.

    I also did Zen meditation with a convent community several times a week. The mother superior who led the group, and who also counseled me, did her meditation in a full lotus position, and which I found fascinating — not easy to do believe me — and her counseling was just as strenuous. Even so, I have no regrets.

    However, I am now a Taoist and very happy with it, and I am not celibate.


  5. In “The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power” by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad the authors make a brilliant analysis of the destructiveness of the “renunciate” religious traditions, which includes Catholicism, to the individual, community, and ultimately, in their denial of the body and “earthly existence”, the planet. This issue of the denial and de-sacralization of sexuality (along with nature, birth, and woman) is a fundamental issue addressed in evolving Goddess spirituality.


  6. Thank you Carol for this blog on this huge social issue – I too watched Spotlight last week –Chilling, powerful “underdog” story. What was clear and important to see was how the RC and broader community were part of the WHOLE cover-up of the priests sexual abuse –as said in the movie – “if it takes a village to bring up a child … it’s takes a village to abuse a child too”.

    Your story of the Jesuits toxic thinking and beliefs made my skin crawl… and these PRIESTS are what the lay people go to for spiritual counselling and advice! Here in Brisbane many years ago, a Jesuit priest wrote a book and revealed how his father ( a doctor) dealt with the “feral” antics of the local priest and nuns.

    The morning after watching Spotlight I was surfing the internet and found a web site Abuse Tracker: http://www.bishop-accountability.org/AbuseTracker/
    Established in 2002 (now run by retired Journalist Kathy Shaw) to bring together articles and latest reports on the RC sexual abuse scandals in USA – and the Vatican’s responds. Now it covers the whole world and all religious communities and their own SV scandals. REALLY interesting site.

    So how is the underbelly of this toxic RC Institution tracking in 2016? … I read the Vatican is saying Priests must report SV to the police … yet the new Bishop interns were informed NO you don’t, the victim need to go to the Police, it is not the Bishop’s issue. SNAP (as shown in the movie) RC Survivors network responded and was confronting the Vatican on these issue/s and then of course back in Boston, a Bishop was apologizing for trying to place a priest in a local parish where he had abused children before! (WHY is the Priest STILL a Priest) …….and of course the RC sexual scandals now been played out in Australia…. Nothing has changed… not in 15 years.
    Spotlight and the many issues raised including Carol points on their sexual deceit IS every ones’, every families’, every communities’ issue. When are we going to deal with it?



  7. I’m glad I’m not Catholic! I’m wondering if the real issue is not sex but power-over. So-called holy men of many patriarchal religions crave power over other people–less powerful men and powerless women and children. I have a friend who stopped studying with a famous Hindu guru because he was a sexual abuser. Another friend considered herself lucky to escape the clutches (literal or not, I don’t know) of a televangelist. Is it possible to pull the standard-brand religions out of the darkest ages?


  8. The idea of celibacy is rooted in hatred and fear of women, which is the basis of all patriarchal religion and patriarchal social structure. Hatred and fear are not viable ways to structure anything. It is time for women to restructure society in a more humane way. How to begin?


    • Yes I would agree Katherine. Celibate men view women as the devil’s gateway, and celibate women deny their own female bodies. In addition, as far as I am concerned, any religion that is looking for life more perfect than the one we have in our bodies that comes through our mothers’ bodies and ends in death, are denying birth through the body of the mother and this life as the great cosmic gift.


      • Carol, that’s for sure. I think you’ve got it. Life is sometimes a really confusing gift, but it is indeed the great cosmic gift. Nothing that I’ve ever heard of is born from a male body.

        Celibacy can be a lifestyle choice, of course, but it has to be a freely made choice, not one that’s imposed by Church Fathers.


  9. I liked the movie too. The point about priestly abusers denial on the basis that they didn’t enjoy it is made there too, from one priest who emphasized to the investigators that he didn’t get any satisfaction from it, and that made it in his eyes OK. Thanks for that link, Tess.


  10. Wonderful essay, Carol. There is an excellent, award-winning documentary on this issue: “Pink Smoke over the Vatican,” by Jules Hart, about women who have been ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church and some priests who think that is the very worst thing that can happen to the Church.


    • Thanks Miriam. As many Catholics have been saying since Vatican 2, the real church is the people of God, not a mystified powerful hierarchy ruling in their name. You and I might say the real church is all beings in the web of life held in the embrace of the Goddess.


  11. Thank you for this article, Carol. You have pointed out issues I hadn’t thought of. In the 1990s knew a few people who had been abused by priests, so I was well aware of the struggle to get justice as it was

    I agree with those who say pedophilia is an issue of “power over”, even though it involves sex. Ultimately it is about having power over another person (as is the priestly victimizing of adults) and taking their power for your own.

    One thing that you didn’t point out is that another reason why priests are abusing children, at least some of them, is that it happened to them, often by a priest, and so seems “normal”. This is another way the abuse gets handed down.


  12. Ever wondered why paedophiles are drawn to religions that approve or forgive? Is it time to end it? Will it stop the problem? What will stop the problem? A more intelligent population? Brain scans? Tests?
    To perform the act you have to be both paedophile and psychopath. This must be possible to measure and protect children from.


  13. What an article. As a woman who was abused by a “loving’ minister (among others) as an adolescent I remember well the guilt and disgust that I felt towards myself as a young woman, and mourn the reality that this is probably the case for most victims then and now. As a therapist I work with others on sexual abuse issues knowing that I have been working to heal myself of these wounds my entire life. At seventy, I still struggle. It is my belief that feminists have barely scratched the surface with regard to healing our sexual wounds. Thank you for writing about this difficult subject.


  14. Carol, I attended your Goddess tour of Crete in 2010 along with friend Juliana Ericson. I, too, watched Spotlight the week before it won the Academy Award for best picture. I remember your telling us that the whole “second birth” doctrine of Christianity, requiring that we all must be born again through Jesus to obtain immortality, undermines and devalues our physical birth through the mother. The Vatican has in recent years put pressure on the Sisters who minister to women to enforce the teachings of the church regarding sexuality (not much forgiveness or forbearance for women who deviate from the norm), while at the same time continuing the vast cover up of the male component by minimizing the sins of the Fathers. I cannot pass a Catholic church without feeling a wave of revulsion, and, I understand that the Protestant Church has a huge problem with predatory behavior by their male “ministers” as well. At the end of the day, it’s mostly about money. The only time Jesus was reported to have lost his temper in righteous indignation was when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. It was the one act that sealed his fate. I believe the Catholic Church has done the math on what it would cost to make monetary restitution for their priests’ crimes, not to mention loss of monetary support from their parishioners, loss of tax-free status by governmental institutions–just another racket, another version of the wolves in sheep’s clothing, or the human trafficking of women and children via the internet.


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